“Professionalism” in the Workplace: What does this REALLY mean?

We talk a lot about “professionalism” and how important it is for college students to learn how to be a “professional” in the workplace. However, we don’t always talk about what it really means, and many students are left with a vague idea of what it looks like – which, I’ve discovered, often consists of a business suit, formal manners/communication, and a sense of feeling a little robotic or putting on an image of some sort. While certainly first impressions (including what you wear) and how you communicate with employers and colleagues are a part of professionalism, being a professional in the workplace consists of so much more – and it’s not necessariy as formal and scary as it sounds.

When asked about “professionalism”, students often cite the image listed above. However, when asked who they consider to be a “professional”, they list examples of athletes, teachers, parents, and more – many of whom have never worn a suit in their life. When asked a few more questions, the qualities of a “professional” they are identifying are things such as someone who displays excellence and a good example. While successful athletes, teachers, corporate leaders, and others may dress differently in their respective work places, essentially, most have discovered how to channel the best versions of themselves in their workplace, and combine it with some necessary skills that all of us can learn – here are a few tips.

Top Five Tips on Professionalism:

  1. Preparation. Being “prepared” can look different depending on the specific situation (meeting, project update, event), but it includes things like being on time/early, reading necessary documents ahead of time such as the agenda, knowing what to wear (business formal, business casual, casual?), having the necessary tools (e.g. pen, notebook, computer for taking notes, etc.), getting enough sleep the night before so you are alert, and thinking of outcomes or questions to address at the event.
  2. Initiative/Being Proactive. Rather than waiting to be told what to do, successful professionals take initiative to recognize problems and suggest solutions to solve them. They also recognize their strengths and offer up ways they can use them in the workplace. Successful professionals keep an eye open for opportunities (such as teams, projects, committees, etc.) and volunteer themselves strategically (what are you most interested in learning? Who will be involved? You can’t volunteer for everything!) for involvement as ways to learn new skills and connect with others.
  3. Prioritization: All of us will have more things to do in a day than we can accomplish. Professionalism requires us to prioritize the most important tasks each day/week and to make time for them, giving less time and energy to other tasks and distractions (such as email, texts, office conversations, even though some of these may be easier and quicker to check off a to-do-list!). Although not new, Stephen Coveys “Seven Habits of Successful People” has some great examples of how to identify prioritize and put “first things first”.  Check out this quick video for a great example of how this can work!
  4. Communication. This idea of “formal” language in the workplace comes up when people think of communication in relation to professionalism, but really it’s much simpler than that. Yes, certainly, using correct grammar in emails and avoiding swear words at work are important! However, what this really means is connecting with and keeping up with the people who need to know what you’re working on, and informing them of your progress. It mean figuring out the best channels (does your boss prefer in-person? Texts? Email updates?) and the appropriate timelines (quick daily check-ins? Weekly email updates?) for connecting and sharing. Encounter a problem? Make a mistake? Have a question/issue that’s preventing you from moving forward on an important task? Going to be late for a meeting? Reach out and communicate this as soon as possible with those who need to know!
  5. Engagement and Commitment. If you’re not paying attention and truly putting your best work into what you do, you’re not being professional. Beyond just not looking at your phone while talking with colleagues and staying on task in meetings (even when taking notes on your computer), this goes deeper – is this work a top priority? Are you giving your best energy and talents to it? If you are, it will show – if you’re not, this will also show. If you’ve tried and it’s just not working for you, that can be a sign it may be time to move on.

Professionalism may look a little different depending on workplace culture, but in any setting, these top five tips will help give you some concrete ideas of what it means to be “professional” in any field.

If you’d like even more information about specific skills employers are looking for in recent grads (which includes most on this list), check out the most recent annual list from the National Association of Colleges and Employers!  https://www.naceweb.org/about-us/press/2017/the-key-attributes-employers-seek-on-students-resumes/